Oxford Jewish Casualties in the First World War; Three Mysteries

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Published in Oxford Menorah Magazine, issue 212, September 2014, pp. 24-5 and reproduced here with the kind permission of the author Harold Pollins

There is  a brief reference, in David Lewis’s  The Jews of Oxford (1992),  to Oxford Jews (residents and students) who died in the armed forces in the First World War.  He explains that Louis Freedson, the secretary for the resident section of the congregation, suggested in 1919 that there should be a war memorial. This idea was taken up by the secretary of the student organisation, the Adler Society, who appealed for information about  fatalities among members of the university. Lewis comments: ‘the response was evidently unsatisfactory, and the plaque which eventually resulted had no names’. That plaque is in the synagogue.  He then goes on to say that his own incomplete figures suggest a death roll of ten to  twelve  and gives the names of two University members – Robert Sebag-Montefiore and Frank Woolf Haldinstein. He adds the name of one resident, Victor Zacharias Jessel, the youngest son of the well-known Joel Zacharias.

But his explanation provides the first of three mysteries. It is this. Elsewhere in the book Lewis refers to a famous occasion in 1931 when Herbert Loewe was leaving Oxford to take up a post in Cambridge and he organised a ‘grand service’, primarily to celebrate the centenary of the birth of Adolf Neubauer (an ancestor of Miriam Kochan), as well as to accept Torah scrolls of the Canterbury congregation. Lewis states that for his account of the events of 1931 he depended on the printed order of service, as well as the reminiscences of one who there.  Now this is the mystery. I have  seen the printed Order of Service (which is in the Bodleian Library). It contains, on pages 19 and 20, a list of the names of 22 students and of two Oxford residents who died in the armed forces. They were read out at the service. It is surprising that when David Lewis had consulted that document for his account of the service he somehow overlooked that list of names. I cannot explain it; it was a strange lapse in one whom I know to have been a meticulous researcher.

There is a  second mystery. Despite David Lewis’s valid suggestion that the attempt to gather the names of the deceased was inconclusive, a war memorial was in fact created. This is evidenced by the fact that in 1924 a ceremony was held at the synagogue for the reception of a memorial to those who  fell in the war – presumably the suggestion that information be collected about such fatalities had borne fruit. The report of the unveiling of the war memorial, in the Jewish Chronicle, 14 March 1924, recorded that Mr H. S. Q. Henriques performed the unveiling. He was a well-known lawyer, a graduate of Oxford, and author of The Jews and the English Law.  The service was conducted by Rev B. B. Liebermann MA, who had ministered to the congregation before 1914. The Ark was opened by Mr D. Davidson, one of the oldest members, and father of one of the fallen. That was Harry Mitchell Davidson, who was in fact a cousin of Victor Zacharias-Jessel. I wrote an article about him which was published in Menorah in 1993.

The memorial was described in the JC as follows: ‘The Tablet consisted of the copper plaque overlaid with silver, and is the work of Miss Hirschfeld. The inscription, which is in Hebrew and English reads
‘To the memory of all Jews, whether in the City or University, worshippers, sojourners, and students known and unknown, who laid down their lives in the years of battle, 1914-1918.’
The words were composed by Mr. S. Isaacs, M.A., of Exeter College. The roll of Honour was contained in a memorial volume, and here is the third mystery.  The 1924 report said that the memorial volume containing the memorial was ‘to be attached permanently to the reading desk in the synagogue.’ I have made some inquiries about this. It is certainly not attached to the reading desk now although it may well have been so located originally.   What happened to it, in the course of time, is unknown. If anyone has any information please share it.

I should say that the report in the JC lists the names of the deceased. It is the same list as in the Order of Service of 1931, and was obviously its basis. It includes the same mis-spelling of one of the names, printing Crighton for Crichton. It is an incomplete list. I have found the names of four other students who died or were killed in action, plus two ‘marginal’ brothers with the Jewish name  Goldberg, both barristers and both were at University College. They are best described as ‘of Jewish origin’. Their parents married in church in 1865, the mother was not Jewish, one of the brothers married in church, and the father became a Roman Catholic and was buried at St Paul’s Church, Newdigate, Surrey. I have not included them in my list


The image below from the Jewish Chronicle piece mentioned above, entitled “Unveiling of war Memorial” 14th March 1924,  has been added to Harold’s article  by the OJH Webmaster purely for illustration

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